Aadhaar’s shaky foundation
India’s mammoth biometrics-based identification project gets a thumbs up from the home ministry, even as inconvenient questions haunting aspects of data collection and control still hang fire
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
Not many doubted that a truce would be reached between the Union home ministry and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), given the way the government had allowed Nandan Nilekani an almost free run. That UIDAI’s mandate has been expanded to cover almost 600 million residents isn’t surprising either.
The home ministry, which had earlier raised a red flag over the quality of data collected by UIDAI, has now agreed to use the same data, albeit with some changes in the procedure. UIDAI and the National Population Register (NPR), which is also collecting biometrics for a smart card to be issued to all citizens, will now cover equal ground – 16 states each – and duplication of work will be minimised to avoid wasteful expenditure.
Till now UIDAI has sought to collect data through various registrars in different states. With the new arrangement, all the states have been told to stop enrolment till further notice. “This duplication of data was done by design, it didn’t happen by default. Had the NPR been rolled out before UID, people would have been wary and thought of it as a surveillance exercise,” said civil rights activist Gopal Krishna.
In fact, Home Minister P Chidambaram was part of the empowered group of ministers constituted to look into the issue. “I am certainly not in favour of rejecting UIDAI or Aadhaar. I support it. I am also not in favour of the rejection of UIDAI Bill by a parliamentary standing committee,” Chidambaram had recently said. The Planning Commission is reported to have objected to the home ministry’s proposal to issue a smart card with all the information, including biometric data.
“I know we are responsible for pushing forward the UIDAI proposal. We are not opposing what NPR is doing. But there are some technical questions as to what kind of biometrics is necessary and the home ministry must have given its comments,” Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission, and one of the most vocal advocates of Aadhaar, had recently said.
In a major blow to the project’s future, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance (PSCF) had rejected the UID draft bill, stating that the scheme “lacks clarity” and “continues to be implemented in an overbearing manner, without regard to legalities and other social consequences”. The earlier mandate to cover 200 million residents will be fulfilled by mid-February, no mean feat in a short time of two years.
Touted as one of the most ambitious projects taken up by the UPA government, the UID number was projected as panacea for a wide variety of problems faced by the poor and marginalised. From speedy and efficient delivery of essential services to solving the banking needs in the rural hinterland, this number, its advocates proclaimed, would streamline the efficiency of the system, even weeding out corruption that eats into a
major portion of funds earmarked for the poor.
Many began to see the project as a necessary milestone on India’s road to ‘superpowerdom’. “We need it acutely because we have an obligation to millions of our countrymen,” Nilekani had said. An MP told this reporter once, “I think this number has a lot of potential. We can actually stop discrimination if we start using this number instead of the name, caste, religion etc.” Wishful thinking, one would imagine, in a country where poverty, disparity and discrimination based on caste, gender and religion are a way of life with deep historical roots; where malnutrition levels touch 40 per cent even as there is talk of ‘economic boom’ with high GDP and FDI inflows.
Listed among the 50 richest persons in the world, UIDAI chief Nilekani told a newsmagazine, “This is just a sort of soft infrastructure, a foundation. That’s why we call it Aadhaar. You have to re-engineer things like the Public Distribution System (PDS) and social welfare schemes.”
However, not everyone buys the sops and marketing gimmicks doled out to popularise the project. Since its inception in 2009, there has been fierce opposition to the project from the civil society. That PSCF has asked for a fresh draft of the UID bill is vindication of what several concerned individuals and groups have been saying all through. “The way they are loading this Aadhaar on almost every application is very problematic,” says Usha Ramanathan, a jurist and one of UIDAI’s harshest critics. Also, many, including top development economist Jean Dreze, are wary of the way the regime is planning cash transfers to the poor. They feel cash is more vulnerable to misuse than food grains distributed through PDS.
‘Had the NPR been rolled out before UID, people would have been wary and thought of it as a surveillance exercise,’
Gopal Krishna, Civil Rights Activist
In a parliamentary democracy, it is almost impossible to bypass the legislature and jump to policies and plans involving the lives of one billion plus people. Anna Hazare and team, who had almost begun considering themselves over and above Parliament, had to learn it the hard way this winter session – despite the support of sections of the media and a motley group of middle-class citizens. However, in the case of Aadhaar, AP Singh, Deputy Director, UIDAI, said, “The adverse PSCF report will have no bearing on UIDAI’s existence and its mandate. Has any ministry
been created through an Act of Parliament ever?”
Set up by a 2009 executive notification of the Planning Commission, lately much of the opposition against UIDAI is also coming from there. UIDAI’s independence, and what critics call highhandedness and arrogance, have ruffled many a feather in the apex planning body.
Many blame it on the unique administrative structure of UIDAI. “Planning Commission doesn’t have the locus standi to agree or disagree. We are under them, but then, we have a chief who has been given the
powers of a cabinet minister,” said a top UIDAI official.
Moreover, Ahluwalia has made it clear that nothing should come in the way of anything that comes from Nilekani. So if he has given the go ahead, then there is no need for a re-look or a rethink. However, when a question is asked in Parliament, it is the Union minister of planning who has to answer it. “The Planning Commission has perhaps realised that Nilekani won’t remain the chief forever; someone else may replace him tomorrow. But it is the commission which will be held answerable for any wasteful expenditure and other anomalies that may later arise, or if some audit or investigations happen,” said Ramanathan.
“This is a bad administrative set-up,” agreed the UIDAI official, but he was also quick to point out that some vested interests in the Planning Commission are making a mountain out of a molehill – clearly a reference to Member-Secretary Sudha Pillai, who is said to be miffed with the UIDAI.
With the home ministry, too, raising a red flag over the quality of data collected by UIDAI, saying that it might not be reliable, given ‘internal security’ concerns, things became more difficult. The ministry is pushing its own NPR scheme, through which close to 10 million biometric records have been created already. “The home minister is right when he says that UIDAI’s data is unreliable,” said Ramanathan. However, UIDAI is of the view that it collects data for purposes different from why NPR has been doing it. For NPR, ‘internal security’ is top priority, while for UIDAI, it is about ‘providing identity’ to residents, or so it claims.
“To check its misuse in these times of global terrorism, this number should be given only to citizens and not to non-citizen residents,” said Raashid Alvi, Congress spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP. However, a UIDAI official claimed, “Once we have covered all the people, one can find out who is a legal resident and who is not, with rigour and proper methods.”
Civil rights activists are worried that all this data, which is currently stored in a private set-up, can be used for profiling and other activities. “The concerns of minorities should be kept in mind,” Alvi pointed out. Moreover, the use of biometrics itself is disputed territory. Even Ram Sevak Sharma, Director General, UIDAI, had accepted recently that authentication of biometric data would be difficult. However, a UIDAI official who spoke to Hardnews claimed that methods of data collection have evolved a lot, so authentication would not remain a major problem.
“We cannot trust the NPR either,” felt Ramanathan. “That exercise, too, is a step towards the making of a Police State, a dictatorship of sorts,” said Krishna. “Now, that the UIDAI draft bill has been rejected, I feel they should seriously rethink this idea and subject the whole exercise to a transparent audit,” Ramanathan argued.